Thought Leadership

Leading in Times of Uncertainty: AI and Teams

Where AI and the Real Intelligence of Your Team Interact

By Karen Cates, PhD

Changing government rules and regulations. Global economic shifts. Increasingly extreme weather cycles. Just when you find your footing, another “new normal” avalanche buries your hard work to stabilize business practices. If it’s not raw-materials sourcing challenges, labor issues take the fore. The bad news? It’s always going to be something. The good? You can develop your team to roll with the changes.

Some companies are seeking to mitigate uncertainty with Artificial Intelligence (AI). While the potential of AI has gotten a lot of press in recent years, so have its failures. Sometimes it is the humans who create the bugs in artificial learning. And sometimes humans simply process data, intentions and emotions more complexly and even more quickly than algorithms do. With or without AI, humans are a necessary part of the equation. My proposition: it is at the intersection of evolving tools such as AI and the real intelligence of your team where success lies in terms of leading in times of uncertainty.

If you don’t know the exact path to get you from here to there, you need to hire or develop expertise to make decisions along the way. This is the stuff of adventure when hiking in the back country or sailing across an ocean. Why is it, then, that sometimes we fall into impotent routine when faced with uncertainty in the workplace? Why don’t we create the same sense of adventure, the same reliance on expert navigating to drive business forward?

The core competency for arriving at your goal intact is being able to make decisions, shift gears or change course in the moment. Below are a few tips to help build this competency in your team:

  1. Set expectations in terms of outcomes. In times of uncertainty, teams need to not only understand the goal, but have the flexibility in terms of how they get there. This fosters creativity and innovation and also makes them nimble if they need or want to change course in the middle of a project. Guidance as to organizational values should create some boundaries so that the approach to work is consistent with your company culture.
  2. Train the team. Decision-making is fraught with biases and assumptions about what kind of information does and does not matter. Best practices in team decision-making processes are well-researched. Train your team to practice them to optimize their results.
  3. Share data and the tools to analyze it. As with AI, team performance is only as good as the data available. Are you sharing all the relevant metrics? Does your team have — or have access to — dynamic modeling expertise? Data analytics tools? In order for teams to make good decisions, they need access to details around the factors that influence the scenario. Withholding even one factor can doom a team to suboptimal outcomes. Garbage in, garbage out. Leadership sabotages good process when it fails to fully equip the team with the information and the tools they need to reach desired outcomes.

By shifting your approach to uncertainty from a containment model to an adventure-seeking one, by training your team to navigate squalls, by providing them with the tools and data they need to shift direction when necessary, you unleash their power not only to survive, but to flourish. You develop their critical thinking skills. They learn confidence that they can handle whatever is thrown their way. Which is good, because the next big thing is just around the corner.


Karen Cates has been teaching at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University since 1994. For nine years, she taught Negotiations, Human Resource Management, and Organization Behavior courses to MBA and Executive MBA students. As a lecturer in executive programs over the past 15 years, she has developed programming and consulted with client companies (domestic and global) around issues of organization alignment, leadership development, communication, strategic planning, and employee relations. She is currently an Academic Director in Kellogg Executive Education's Executive Development Program.

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Executive Development Program

The Kellogg Executive Development Program transforms organizational leaders. It equips top-performing, mid-level to senior managers to make decisions and take strategic action based upon both traditional and innovative business practices. Participants build skills and awareness as they realize their potential for assuming general management roles.

Executive Development Program: Upcoming Sessions

June 8-26, 2020

Start: June 8 at 8:30 AM

End: June 26 at 11:45 AM

Weeks 1 & 2: Evanston campus
Week 3: Chicago campus

This Approval Program is limited to individuals with specific business experience. All applications will be subject to review and approval from the program’s Academic Director.

$34,450

Fee includes lodging and most meals

October 5-23, 2020

Start: October 5 at 8:30 AM

End: October 23 at 11:45 AM

Weeks 1 & 2: Evanston campus
Week 3: Chicago campus

This Approval Program is limited to individuals with specific business experience. All applications will be subject to review and approval from the program’s Academic Director.

$34,450

Fee includes lodging and most meals

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